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Fiction

“Calistoga”

They’d known each other for thirty years and nothing was going to change: Vivi had always been rich and bossy, and Natalie had always been poor and agreeable. But who would turn down two nights at a hot spring in Napa with an old friend? Vivi’s first email read: “I haven’t seen you in forever. Let’s meet in Calistoga, my treat. I insist!” She included a link, which Natalie clicked. 

The website showed a luxury hotel with a centuries-old spa and an enormous swimming pool heated by the earth’s molten core to an amniotic bliss, the kind of hotel with grounds: ponds and paths and nooks for reflection. In the photos, the guests were swaddled in identical white waffle-weave bathrobes. Natalie thought the robes looked vaguely cultish—and then shushed the image out of her head. The wineries were only a bike ride away; the hotel even had beach cruisers to ride to tastings. 

Natalie hadn’t seen Vivi in at least fifteen years. Occasionally, they emailed life reports, and there were also Vivi’s Facebook posts: her elopement a decade before, and two years after that, the post about her divorce: “All bad things must come to an end.” A few years ago, she’d had a baby named Paloma. Vivi was a “single mother by choice”; she had chosen a sperm donor from a database. In an email to Natalie, Vivi wrote that Paloma’s donor dad was a composer who was over six feet tall. Natalie was also a single mother, though her daughter Wendy had been seventeen by the time Paloma was born. 

“I’m a single mother against my will,” she wanted to write, but didn’t.

This time, Natalie emailed back: “I’d love to go to Calistoga with you.” Even if the trip was awkward, even if it was terrible, she’d be in a fancy hotel with a nice bed and good food. And with Vivi. It didn’t matter that they barely talked; Natalie missed her. She loved Vivi, had never made another friend as glamorous and honest—and fun. They’d met in the fifth grade at an all-girls private school, Vivi’s family on the board, Natalie on scholarship. For years, they knew each other so well it was as if they shared a consciousness. If Vivi wanted to, she could pluck out all that Natalie was too stupid or scared to admit aloud. Vivi would blow it off her open palm like so much dandelion fuzz. Make a wish, Nat.

Besides, they would be going the weekend before Natalie got paid; that weekend was always the worst. She was a receptionist at a law firm. It was a fine job, it didn’t embarrass her, but because in Glendale, rents were exorbitant, life was always punitive by the end of the pay period: canned beans for dinner, no coffee out, a harmless austerity that depressed her. 

After she emailed Vivi, she texted Wendy. 

Remember Vivi? My old friend. She’s taking me to Calistoga. Cool, right?

Wendy didn’t reply. Natalie imagined her daughter, twenty-two, in some noirish Koreatown apartment, the parking so bad she took the bus. Was the boyfriend there? Was the boyfriend getting spiritually audited at this very moment? Was he wearing that ersatz navy uniform outside the blue building on Sunset? The boyfriend was a menace. Wendy was a menace too, but in a different way. She’d never been in a cult before. She would be, though, and soon. Wouldn’t she? 

Vivi probably knew tons of former Scientologists. Vivi would tell her what to do. 

 

*

 

Vivi paid for Natalie’s flight out of Burbank, as well as a black car from the Oakland airport. 

“It’s farther away than the one in Santa Rosa, but better.” Natalie wondered how but didn’t ask. “It’ll take almost two hours to get here. I promise it’ll be a comfortable ride!” Vivi wrote. She couldn’t pick up Natalie because she would already be at the hotel. 

“I’ll send you the room number once I’m fully ensconced,” she wrote.

The words fully ensconced repeated in Natalie’s mind as the car made its way into wine country with its acres of grapes and horse paddocks, the working poor among the very rich, Natalie and Vivi writ large, perhaps. The driver was quiet; he played some soothing piano music on the car stereo. Natalie, tucked into the leather womb of the backseat, fell asleep.

She woke with a start when the car reached Calistoga, which was exactly as advertised: a cute little Victorian town at the north end of Napa Valley. A few restaurants and boutiques lined the main street, and what appeared to be an old train depot housed a psychic and a chocolatier. A quirky-looking motel advertised mud baths and colonics. HEALING WATERS blinked its neon sign.

It wasn’t until they passed the motel that Natalie realized the town was eerily empty. Where were all the rugged locals and the tourists in capri pants? She rolled down the tinted window. The sky was yellowish and miasmic.

At the end of the road, the resort glowed, low and whitewashed, Mission style. 

“Hope you don’t have to evacuate,” the driver told her as he helped retrieve her bag from the trunk. He was stocky and thick-necked as a bulldog, and his black dress shoes shone. With his index finger, he picked something from his tongue and squinted at it. 

“Ash,” he said, and pointed to the sky. 

“Oh.” Natalie tried not to look clueless. So that was it. There was a fire nearby—of course there was. It was California in the fall. It was California, period. She didn’t even know what the name of the fire was, or where it was. The world was too far gone to pay attention. 

She looked at the hotel, white as milk, its entrance flanked with olive trees in teak pots. In the fourth grade, Wendy had done a project on California missions. Natalie had to help her; otherwise Wendy wouldn’t have bothered doing it at all.  

“Adobe bricks are fire resistant,” Natalie said. “The priests figured the natives would have a harder time burning them down.”

The driver frowned. “Tell Vivi I’ll be back Sunday evening.”

“You know Vivi?”

“She’s my boss, isn’t she?”

“I thought you were a company she called.”

“Vivi’s the real deal. She doesn’t like to drive nowadays. You know.”

Natalie didn’t know but she wasn’t going to admit that.

When he was gone, she got out her phone.

What is the fire here in Napa called?

Wendy hadn’t texted her back about Calistoga, but Natalie knew this was the right question.

Tubbs. Santa Rosa’s in deep shit. 

So that was why Vivi had wanted her to fly into Oakland. It wasn’t better than Santa Rosa, it was safer.  

Her phone vibrated.

Pull your head out of the sand mom

So, now Natalie knew: Wendy had seen the other texts about Calistoga, and all the ones after that. Two weeks had passed, and there had been no word from her. Was the boyfriend with her when Natalie’s texts came in? Was he asking her to read Dianetics? Was she reading it even though she didn’t read books? Did the boyfriend know what the fire in Napa was called? The name of a fire was not the name of Wendy’s teacher or the name of her best friend, though Natalie had failed to know these when it mattered. 

Natalie texted Thanks and I love you, but she didn’t expect a reply. She was a lot of things when it came to Wendy, but she wasn’t naïve. She wasn’t a fool.

 

*

 

As Natalie rolled her little suitcase down the path to Building 5, Room 104, she tried not to think about Wendy, or how Vivi had hired a full-time driver, or the empty town and the ashy sky. Instead, she imagined her old friend waiting for her. Vivi would be sprawled elegantly across her bed in one of those waffle-weave bathrobes. A classic black bathing suit beneath that, and her jewelry; she always wore jewelry. Some cool earrings perhaps, and her dead mother’s gold band. Painted nails—red. Her hair would be a golden mane around her face, and she’d squeal when Natalie arrived. She would take Natalie in her arms and give her one of her famous hugs, uninhibited and joyous. Vivi always smelled amazing. She wore expensive perfumes that weren’t merely scents, but essences. Hugging Vivi was a sensual experience, a room to step inside. A glimpse of a life that would never belong to Natalie. 

The last time the two of them had seen each other, Wendy was nearly six. By then, Vivi had taken her inheritance and bought a house up north, in Marin County, but she was back in Los Angeles to visit friends. She wanted to see Wendy, Vivi said. The girl’s growing up! I love her! But she left after forty-five minutes when Wendy began writhing on the floor in anger because she wanted to watch TV. Natalie was not invited to the group dinner at El Coyote later that week. 

Even now, it stung Natalie to think of the friends who had ditched her when she became a mother. At 24, single and scared, with a tiny vulnerable person to keep alive, she felt abandoned. She understood now that it was more mundane than that: her friends had simply lost interest. Or felt alienated. Natalie was alien to them. And then, as she fell deeper and deeper into the hole that was raising Wendy, with her tantrums, and her biting, and her inability to be the calm daughter who draws or plays dolls in the corner while the adults do whatever they do, Natalie became unreachable. Eventually, it was as if she had disappeared altogether. Or been erased. Her friends didn’t even think of her.

Of course, fifteen, twenty years later, those friends had become parents themselves. They were older moms, with money and careers, children in adorable soft prints. They hired doulas. They bought the same oval-shaped crib in blonde wood and the play couch that had a year-long waiting list. They shared first day of preschool pics and videos of ballet recitals and of their kids learning to read. Recently, they had begun sharing articles about the lack of a support system for mothers in America, about all the invisible labor that went into raising a child.

Even now they didn’t think of her.  

Natalie’s throat hurt as she swallowed. The sky was a cloak. There was building 5. Room 104. She crossed the gravel path. 

At the open door stood a skeletal figure with gray, close-cropped hair. An older woman, possibly someone who worked at the hotel. Maybe Vivi had ordered them a bottle of local wine. Or a cheese plate. That would be like her. 

The woman turned. “Nat!” She stepped toward Natalie and Natalie felt faint. 

“Viv,” Natalie said, and her voice came out hoarse. It wasn’t the fire, the Tubbs fire, but she hoped Vivi would assume so. It was that her beautiful, healthy friend had been replaced with this sickly, fragile woman. Vivi’s hair was strange: curly wisps at her forehead, the rest flat and matted. Her skin, wan. She wasn’t wearing any jewelry. 

They hugged. Vivi was so bony. No scent but sour.

Vivi pulled away and smiled. Her teeth were still perfect and white. They were the wrong teeth for a woman who looked like this. Inappropriate, even. 

Were the teeth the affront, or the ruined body? 

“I should have told you,” Vivi said. Her voice was the same—sly, reedy—and this too felt like a betrayal. 

“Told me what,” Natalie asked, but she already knew. 

“I’m dying, Nat.”

“Oh,” Natalie replied, in that same stupid way she’d said it to the driver. 

 

*

 

Earlier that morning, when Natalie left for the airport, fog had sheathed the world. Natalie had carefully made her way to her car with one hand in front of her like someone trying to balance on uneven terrain. She marveled at how the world materialized with each step—truck, house, palm tree, bus stop—as if it were all created for her, at that very moment. The flash of bougainvillea, hot pink, crowned out of the mist, and Natalie gasped with delight.

She’d taken it as a good omen: for the trip with Vivi, or maybe for Wendy, for her and Wendy. What is unknown will become known. What seems unfamiliar is, in fact, familiar. Life is a marvel.

She’d been wrong. The universe was trying to send her a different message. 

Pull your head out of the sand mom.

 

*

 

At the hotel restaurant, Vivi wore what had to be the most chic sweatsuit known to humankind. It was made of cashmere, pale pink, with buttons instead of a zipper. She was too thin, everyone could see she was sick, but the sweatsuit helped. That was what Vivi said, and she wasn’t wrong.

If the terror of the news hadn’t worn off, at least Vivi’s appearance had. Natalie recognized her friend in this decimated woman: her white teeth and her voice, yes, but also her green eyes, mischievous and probing, by turns. Her laugh like a hiss, like a ball losing air. Her beautiful hands. The way she sat as straight and poised as a ballerina. Vivi.

They were here for lunch, sitting by the big window. Above the bar stretched a mural of foxes playing ukuleles, and the booths lining one wall were covered in supple green leather. The waiters wore chambray shirts, and the speakers played some anodyne salsa music. Natalie’s gin cocktail tasted like fresh thyme. Her friend was dying.

“I didn’t want to scare you,” Vivi said. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”

“I wouldn’t miss seeing you for anything.”

Vivi had cancer. She’d done all the things: the rounds of chemo, some kind of transplant, the macrobiotic diet, the healing sessions with one master or another, even an exorcism. 

“People always want to know where in my body the tumors are. Like I’m a landmass and it’s a tornado.”

“Or a fire,” Natalie said.

Nodding, Vivi ran her hands up and down in front of her. “At this point, I’m consumed by flames. I’m like that monk who set himself on fire.”

Single mother by choice, Natalie thought.

“So is there a … timeline?” she asked.

“You mean, when do I die?”

Natalie managed a nod.

“There is, but what of it? Right now, this weekend, I feel okay. It won’t last long.”

The waiter brought their food, avocado toast for Natalie and scallops for Vivi. Only Vivi would order scallops for lunch. Natalie’s own plate was stunning; the avocado, covered with various seeds and leafy tendrils Natalie couldn’t name, fanned across a thick wedge of sourdough bread. Not that Natalie wanted to eat anything. Vivi was only picking at her food.

“What about Paloma?” Natalie said. “She’s—what, five?” She paused. Steeled herself. “What does she know?”

“She knows Mommy is sick and that I will not be around for much longer.”

Natalie thought of Wendy at that age. She was still having issues with potty training. Her kindergarten teacher would put her in this little anteroom between classrooms, so that Wendy could spin in a desk chair. That way, she wouldn’t bother the other kids as they valiantly learned to read and count. 

“Is she freaking out?” Natalie asked.

“Not really. She draws pictures of me. You know, in a triangle dress, with a smiley face. She makes this same drawing over and over again.”

Wendy would not have done that. She probably would have thrown chairs at the news, or stopped eating, or run away. The thought of missing any of Wendy’s life took Natalie’s breath away. Even the worst of it, the slow-motion car crashes that were Wendy’s breakdowns, her petty crimes, the first stint in rehab, the second, the brutal texts—it had all been hell and Natalie was glad for all of it. 

She didn’t want to cry so she stared hard at her avocado toast. She willed herself to take a bite.

“We have a grief therapist named Dr. Linda. Dr. Linda says Paloma’s processing.”

“A grief therapist?” Natalie tried to think of something useful to say.
“You know how I used to say, ‘Any problem that can’t be solved with money isn’t a problem?’”

Natalie couldn’t help but grunt. “Spoken like a true rich person. If you don’t have the money, isn’t that a problem?”

“Well, sure, okay. But, truly, every real problem in the world can be boiled down to one thing: Loss.”

Vivi said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. And maybe it was. Vivi was dying and no money would change that.

“Are you saying even the grief therapist doesn’t help?”

“I knew you were the perfect friend to hear this.”

“What will you do—about Paloma? Who will care for her?” Vivi’s parents were dead, and she had no siblings. 

Vivi looked stricken. 

“I’m sorry,” Natalie said. “We don’t have to talk about this.”

Vivi shook her head. “I do want to talk about it. Just not right now. Not here.”

They both looked around the restaurant, and then out the window. On their walk from the room, ash had dusted their shoulders like snowfall; Natalie’s throat was scratchier than ever. 

“Should we worry about the fire?” Natalie asked.

“Nothing bad ever happens here,” Vivi said. 

 

*

 

Vivi didn’t want to dwell, she said. She wanted to celebrate and to relax, to catch up. She had booked them spa appointments for the afternoon. Mud baths and hot stone massages. Tonight, dinner at the same restaurant. 

“We’re on a compound,” she said. 

“I’m never leaving,” Natalie replied.

“I’ll foot the bill. But only until I die—then it’s on you.”

It was a little weird, and also not weird at all, that they could pick up right where they left off, but wasn’t that the nature of friendships like these? The shorthand, the jokes, the familiarity: it was a frequency they had to listen for. Vivi showed her the dress she planned to wear that night, and they laughed at the squirrels scrabbling up the live oak outside their room. They caught up on gossip about people from middle and high school. When Natalie changed for the spa, Vivi exclaimed at how great Natalie looked topless. 

“Your breasts are iconic,” she said, relishing the word. “They’re i-con-ic!” 

Natalie laughed and laughed. 

When Vivi went to the bathroom, Natalie got out her phone.

I drank thyme-infused gin.

No reply.

Vivi says my boobs are iconic.

Still nothing.

Vivi’s dying. My best friend is dying.

Finally, Wendy wrote back.

you havent seen her in years how can she be your best friend

Natalie could slap her.

Doesn’t matter. I love her. How’s the boyfriend?

To Natalie’s surprise, Wendy answered:

You mean Darren hes doing good.

“Who are you texting?”

Natalie tossed her phone on the bed, as if caught, and told her.

They had talked about Wendy briefly at lunch: how she was working at a coffee shop; how her hair at the nape of her neck was shaved like Vivi’s had been in the nineties. 

“It’s a bitch to grow out,” Vivi had said, “but I’m sure she realizes.”

“The thing about Wendy is that she definitely doesn’t. She never thinks about the future.”

Vivi laughed. “I admire that.”

Now Natalie wondered how to tell Vivi what had worried her before she had arrived. No problem that can be solved with money is a problem. But this was about loss, wasn’t it?

“I’m afraid she’s becoming a Scientologist,” she finally said. “Her boyfriend’s pretty serious about it. Wendy said he’s an ‘operating thetan’ and she didn’t laugh when she said those words.”

“Uh oh.”

“I guess it means he’s on track to becoming enlightened.”

“You know you’ll be labeled a suppressive person. She’ll cut you out.”

“I know, I Googled it.” The thought of Wendy joining a cult made Natalie want to get under the bed covers and take a long nap.

In her waffle-weave bathrobe, Vivi looked as small as a child. Her skin was grayish against the white robe. She sat on the bed next to Natalie and put a hand on her back.
“Remember when you cut me and everyone out of your life?”

“What are you talking about? I was never a Scientologist!”

“Of course not. You were a mother. None of us were in that cult yet.”

“What do you mean? I wanted your help. Your friendship. You all left me.”

Vivi looked confused. “Oh honey, no. You never returned anyone’s calls. I’d send you these long emails and maybe, weeks later, you’d write back a line or two. And everyone said you never came out. No one ever saw you.”

“I had a kid! I wasn’t brushing my teeth, let alone writing emails. And I had no money for a sitter.”

“Please let’s not make this about class.” Vivi checked her watch, which probably cost more than Natalie’s car—but Natalie would not make it about class. 

“Mud baths in twenty. Let’s go.”

 

*

 

The spa was the estate’s original building, from the nineteenth century, and you could tell because it was smaller and darker, less well-appointed than anything else at the hotel. The woman at the front desk kept calling them “sweetheart” and “honey,” even though she couldn’t be older than Wendy. She offered them ginger lozenges, to counter any discomfort from the smoke of the fire, and Vivi and Natalie sucked on them as they were ushered to the locker room. The lozenge was sharp on Natalie’s tongue. Her throat no longer hurt, but she was conscious of it, as if it weren’t part of herself, as if she were wearing it. She excused herself to the bathroom to change; she needed to be away from Vivi for a minute. 

She couldn’t stop thinking about what Vivi said back in the room, about how Natalie cut her friends out of her life. How she’d been in the cult of motherhood. How could two people have totally different versions of reality? Natalie had always thought Vivi got her. 

The spa was warm, but not so warm that she should be sweating. Being misunderstood always made Natalie anxious; whenever she and Wendy argued, it felt as if she’d just been clobbered by an ocean wave, only to resurface to a bigger, more dangerous one. There was no convincing anyone—not your dying friend, not your difficult daughter—that your intentions were different than they supposed. Another thing you couldn’t solve with money. Or probably not.

But Natalie had seen the spa menu and she knew the mud bath was nearly two hundred dollars. What problem was Vivi trying to solve by bringing Natalie here? 

The attendants called their names. Both were Latina, nearing sixty, Natalie guessed. Did Natalie make more or less money than a mud bath attendant at a fancy resort? What a shitty thing to wonder, she thought, and yet—did anyone with forty-nine dollars in their checking account ever come to this place? She doubted it. 

The attendants led them down a narrow hallway that opened to a large room. In one corner, two guests—a duo on a friend getaway like Vivi and Natalie, perhaps—were being hosed off by their own attendants. They were probably fifteen years younger than Vivi and Natalie, and Natalie watched Vivi take in their lithe and healthy bodies, gritty with the mud that slid down their torsos and legs into the large floor drain. Once all the mud was washed off, they’d be slippery and new. They’d be perfect. You could tell they weren’t mothers. They bore no signs of it, physical or spiritual.

“I wish I were thirty again,” Vivi said.

“I don’t,” Natalie said.

Natalie thought of her life then: she’d found a job at a dental office because she and Wendy needed better benefits. It was awful, bad pay and deathly boring (like her current job). There was something demoralizing about mailing out the appointment reminder postcards to patients who didn’t show up. The smell of the fluoride made her sick, and the whir of the drill was like a gnat in her ear. Then Wendy broke a kid’s arm at school, for apparently no reason at all, and his mother screamed at Natalie to control her monster of a child.

The two younger women were clean now. They turned somber as their attendants wrapped them in white towels and led them to a row of clawfoot tubs at the other side of the room. These were filled with mineral water, pumped in from the hotel’s geyser, Natalie heard their attendants explain. 

Natalie and Vivi were instructed to remove their bathrobes. Until now, Natalie hadn’t seen Vivi without clothes. Her friend dropped her bathrobe and gave Natalie a look that meant: Don’t look away.

Vivi was as vulnerable as an injured songbird. She was so frail, and so impossible. There was no way she should be able to stand upright. Her breasts had been removed.

“Now you know where the fire began,” she said, and let her attendant lead her to her mud bath.

The baths were actually large cement troughs, and the mud was dark and gruel-like. It looked disgusting. Natalie stepped into her own trough carefully, and the swampy substance surrounded her, sucked on her. She sank in and her mind went blank as a television screen being shut off. 

“Why did you bring me here?” she whispered. She turned and saw that Vivi’s eyes were closed. Mud was smeared across her collarbone. 

Vivi opened her eyes. “You knew there was a reason.”

“Not at first. At first I thought it was because you missed me.”

Vivi closed her eyes again. “You know what will hurt most about dying?”

Natalie didn’t hesitate. “Not knowing how Paloma will turn out.”

Vivi shook her head and grinned. Her eyes were still closed but Natalie could tell she was picturing something and it was glorious. “I know she’ll be amazing. Fierce and beautiful and smart as hell.” 

“What is it then?”

“It’s that I won’t get to see it. See her.”

Natalie didn’t answer because there was nothing to say. Loss was the only unsolvable problem, especially for a mother. 

Vivi’s eyes were still closed when she said, “My lawyer’s name is Kristen Vebber. She’ll call you.”

“Your lawyer?”

“About Paloma.”

Natalie tried to sit up but it was like being held down, smothered; she could barely move. She felt suddenly nervous, as she had in the locker room.

“I want you to take her,” Vivi said. Her eyes were open now, and she was watching Natalie closely to gauge her reaction. “Adopt her. Raise her.”

“Why me?”

“No one else can do it. Not like you will. She’s not even six yet.”

“Vivi, we don’t even know each other anymore. Who am I?”

“You’re a mom with experience. Wendy’s grown up.”

“And I totally fucked her up. She has problems, Vivi. Real problems.”

Vivi removed one of her hands from her tub. It was coated in brown muck. When she waved it at Natalie, bits of mud sprayed between them. 

“Stop that!” Natalie said.

“Her problems aren’t because of you. You love that girl.”

“What if they are, though?”

Vivi’s eyes were closed again and when she spoke, it was as if conjuring a spirit. 

“Paloma has a significant trust. Whoever takes her will have an ample salary available to them until Paloma graduates college—or until she turns twenty-two, whatever happens first. Kristen Vebber has it all worked out. It took a long time to finalize the details.”

“This seems crazy.”

“I know. But fuck, I’m not going to be here and I don’t want her going to some horrible aunt I barely know. Besides, Paloma loves the photos of you, the stories.”

Natalie didn’t know what to say. Did she want another child? Could she care for Paloma the way she deserved? What if she messed her up? The mud felt very hot; it oozed into her. 

“Natalie,” Vivi said, startling Natalie. Her voice was certain now. Vivi was looking straight at her. Straight into her soul.

“I have enough money to solve this problem,” Vivi said. “And yours.”

“My problem.”

“Does Mr. Operating Thetan have money? My guess is no—not as much as you and Paloma.” She laughed, a ball deflating around the room. 

Natalie couldn’t help but laugh, too. 

“And if you lose Wendy,” Vivi said. “Paloma will be there.”

 

*

 

Three hours later, after the mud bath and the mineral soak and the hot stone massages, Natalie was alone in the resort swimming pool. Vivi had returned to the room. She was worn out, she said, and she wanted to call Paloma with the good news. Natalie had agreed.

The water in the pool was warmer than the air, like a giant bathtub, and Natalie let it envelop her. It did feel healing. A handful of other guests floated around her. Vivi was right; nothing bad could happen here.

Natalie let go of the pool noodle on which she’d been bobbing and floated on her back. The sun had gone down but the fire left its fug, and the sky was orange-gray, heavy. It smelled like smoke, much worse than before. Someone nearby was coughing. 

She imagined the flames getting closer and closer until they were here, at this hotel. Heat that hollowed trees and cooked animals would throttle the property and melt the buildings to sand and then to glass.

Vivi’s image of Natalie was warped, so what. Natalie wasn’t sure it mattered. Not anymore. Vivi knew Natalie wouldn’t say no. Maybe that was why she’d chosen her in the first place. Natalie could live with that. 

She was going to buy a little Spanish-style place in Atwater like she’d always wanted. She would quit her job. She would walk Paloma to and from school. Wendy could come for dinner if she wanted. They’d get take-out. 

Vivi would be dead. 

Not yet, though. She was still alive tonight, and she wanted to leave early. First thing tomorrow. Not because of the fire, even if the fire was the sane reason to go. The front desk was giving full refunds. But Vivi wanted to get back to Paloma. 

Natalie didn’t mind. If something bad was going to happen here in Calistoga, which was the closest thing to heaven on Earth, she didn’t want to be around to see it. She would go on believing it remained unscathed. 

It would be untouchable.

She would go meet the little girl.

Edan Lepucki is the "New York Times" bestselling author of the novels "California" and "Woman No. 17." Her third novel, "Time’s Mouth," will be released in 2023.

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